After the two days of violence that erupted in eastern Indonesian city of Ambon, some 23 people have been reported dead and more than 148 others have been injured. In one of the worst incidents since the signing of the Malino peace agreement in 2002, the Christian area in Mardika was burned down, including churches and the Christian Theological University (UKIM). Christians since then have been fleeing the Muslim area of Batu Merah.
The outbreak began after a dozen members of the region's small Christian separatist movement paraded through Ambon to mark the anniversary of the short-lived "independent" South Maluku Republic (RMS) 54 years ago. Exact details of the incident are still emerging.
Some reports state that when police escorted the demonstrators past the Pohon Puleh area, some Muslims from the crowd started throwing stones at them, which prompted police to open fire. Other sources say that violence escalated after Christian and Muslim youths exchanged jeers and insults, and eventually started throwing stones at each other after which officials fired gunshots to disperse the rioters.
Catholic priest Cornelius Bohm of the Ambon Crisis Center (a human rights information center) reported that some people had apparently been infuriated by "the provocative behavior and hoisting of numerous RMS flags," eventually leading to a "full scale attack." Bohm also reported that Christians from one affected area in Ambon had fled the area finding themselves defenseless and with "no security forces on the spot."
The violence that erupted on Sunday has been described as the bloodiest since Muslims and Christians signed a government sponsored peace pact in 2002. The pact came after more then 9,000 people were killed in Malukus between 1991 and 2001 in fighting between Muslims and Christians. Since then sporadic violence between the two groups has continued but none having escalated like this. Eyewitnesses say those killed had been shot or hacked to death.
“It is a tragedy that violence has flared up again after the people of the Maluku islands had enjoyed a period of calm and reconciliation. Reconstruction efforts have been extremely successful and it is crucial that the Indonesian government acts decisively to stop the violence from spreading any further and that those responsible are brought to justice,” said Tina Lambert, Advocacy Director for Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
Bishop Mandagi, Catholic Bishop of the Maluku commented, “Ordinary people do not want violence, but with the coming elections, political players and extremists have taken advantage of the situation. I hope that the central government in Jakarta will take firm action against the attackers and bring them to justice so that people know that law is upheld in Indonesia. Also, the security forces sent to the area should act in an impartial and professional manner.
“We as Christians should not respond to provocation and should realize that violence is not the way to overcome the conflict.”
One positive sign has been the co-operation between senior Muslim and Christian leaders who are working together to try to stop the violence. Although, Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, South Maluku's two million people are evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. The leaders of both communities signed a Maluku reconciliation agreement in January 2004 to recommit themselves to the reconciliation and reconstruction of the Maluku and that commitment has held strong even in this difficult situation.
Local authorities and United Nations officials also have been working to achieve reconciliation, and reports on Monday said calm had been restored to the eastern Indonesian town of Ambon, as security conditions returned to normal.